This pandemic has created an interesting research period. We can ask very unique questions about workplaces coping with a large, global crisis. We can also study leadership and try to understand what crisis leadership looks like. In addition, we are in a unique situation where relevant research is being fast tracked to get into the public’s hands more quickly. Thus, today we talk about an early study in our field about women leaders and COVID-19.

Please note: we are talking about binary, assigned biological sex when discussing women leaders solely because most of the research has been conducted in cisgender populations. Researchers, unfortunately, have not done enough to understand how these stereotypes and challenges faced by cisgender women play out for non-binary or trans communities.

What Do We Know About Women Leaders?

There’s been a lot of research over the years showing bias against women leaders. However, women are often chosen or preferred to lead in organizations in the midst of a downturn or crisis. This comes with a lot of cons but the phenomena of the ‘glass cliff‘ is real. I’m sure it is no surprise that women are less represented in leadership and often face their own unique challenges and biases against them.

Women are still underrepresented in leadership positions.

There is some good new though! In general, women are more likely to lead in ways that are effective in today’s current environment. Women are more likely to exhibit transformational leadership behaviors compared to men. In other words, women tend to:

  • Show optimism and excitement about goals and for the future,
  • Explore new perspectives on how to solve problems and complete tasks,
  • Focus on developing and mentoring employees, and
  • Attend to employees’ individual needs.

Generally speaking, this type of leadership is considered very effective today. Additionally, companies where women are in leadership roles and on the board tend to do better financially than companies without women at the top. Specifically, women CEOs are particularly impactful on a business’s bottom line. Finally, small banks with women CEOs were more likely to survive the financial crisis in 2008.

COVID-19 Outcomes

So, how does this all play out today during the COVID-19 crisis? A new study was conducted in the U.S. that found that states with women governors saw fewer deaths (thus far) than states with men governors. Even when comparing governors of both sexes that implemented stay at home orders, women governors saw fewer deaths in their states.

Women leaders around the world have been effective in handling the pandemic.

Interestingly, the researchers analyzed the governors’ briefings to understand how people spoke about the crisis. Women showed more empathy and awareness of how others were feeling. They also talked about people’s welfare and showed emotional reactions to the suffering associated with work and financial hardship. In addition, women expressed more optimism about the future. Check out the article (Table 4) for a sample of quotes from the analysis. It’s a very interesting read.

So what are the key takeaways? In a crisis, as a leader, you should consider showing empathy, awareness of others’ feelings, and optimism. A large crisis impacts the leader as well as the followers. Show that! Don’t be afraid to show some emotion and relate to other people. interestingly, this ties in nicely with our previous article on how to communicate as a leader in a crisis.

While these findings are amazing, we do need to take them with a grain of salt. There are very few women governors so the sample size is quite small. Additionally, the study didn’t take population density into account and we know more densely populated states and cities tend to be harder hit. However, this conversation is really important. We need more diverse voices in leadership. Hopefully, these types of studies can help push our collective mindset towards more inclusion and diversity.

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